“All photographs are memento mori.”
Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977.
Since the beginnings of photography in the early 19th century, the camera has equally served the twin masters of science and art. For the first in the history of humanity we could capture images “as is” without the intercession of an illustrator’s interpretation. Whether it was glass, or metal, or digital sensor, the captured image was held sacrosanct as the objective truth.
This paper will be an examination of that role as a “truth bearer” in a museum context. We will be discussing practical aspects of contemporary digital photography, legal aspects of image making, and finally a meditation on its philosophical/ aesthetic aspects.
Generally speaking, archival photography is an extension of curatorship, which is to say it is about the preservation of information. It is for this reason, a very accurate record of the item is an absolute necessity, particularly since items decay, are destroyed, or lost, or traded away.
The archival photograph must be evenly lit, with some kind of scaling device for size and color included. It should be captured, ideally, in the RAW format and saved as a TIF, or other lossless format.
When a digital camera records an image, it records far more detail than the eye can see. It is for this reason that the camera will discard most of the image’s data, yielding by agreed upon default what we refer to as a JPEG. (1) An image captured in the RAW (a literal term, not an acronym) format contains and preserves all of the information that the camera recored. It is sometimes referred to as a “digital negative”. Unlike film, a “digital negative” is not reversed image, but rather a file that contains all the possible information that the image could possibly yield. For archival purposes, the entire RAW file, with included tonality and scaling device (2) in the image, needs to be saved.
The standard operating procedure is to then derive a “work” file and a “catalogue” file from the archival image. This is done by duplicating, then editing the original image. At this point, the scaling device may be cropped out, and the image “levels” may be adjusted to make a visually more pleasing, “palatable”, image. (3) All images must be saved in a lossless format such as a TIF. (4)
TIF is an acronym for Tagged Image File Format. (Or sometimes Thousands of Incompatible File Formats.) The main advantage to the TIF is that it is a lossless format, as opposed to the humble JPEG, which is lossy. Simply put, the JPEG loses information every time it is opened, altered, then saved, because it self cannibalizes information to run the procedure. It does take quite a few operations before this is noticeable, but none the less… The TIF on the other hand, with zero compression, loses no information.
The zeros and ones of the digital archive file are useless, of course, without a compatible , flexible interpretive reading system. Platform migration, wherein data is transferred from to system or format to another, must be anticipated. The Mission of all museums is to preserve information for the ages. There has always been a subtle post- apocalyptic feel to all museums. The future hold out remnants from when our current civilization will become its past.
We are but in the first era of digital preservation, something new in the history of the human race. As artifacts become digitized, the relevance of the artefact itself diminishes, and in fact becomes secondary. It is the information of the artefact that the future will need. A clay pot is a clay pot. It is the existential fact of this particular clay pot belonged to such and such people, who lived here, and thought like this… that is of interest.
My argument is in the primacy of the information over the simple fact of object being. This information must be transferrable from platform to platform, in a manner not dissimilar from word-of-mouth migration thats served us for generations.
SOME LEGAL ISSUES:
Copyright is considered to be “not a natural right, but a social construction… enacted through federal statute.” (Maher) The United States Constitution states: “The Congress shall have the power… To promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for Limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Article 1, Section 8).
“It may seem unfair that much of the fruit of the compiler’s labor may be used by others without compensation. As Justice Brennan has correctly observed, however, this is not some “unforeseen byproduct of statutory scheme.” It is, rather, “the essence of copyright” (ibid) and a constitutional requirement. The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but to “Promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts”, (Article 1, section 8, US Constitution) Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. (Harper and Row, 471 U.S., at 589 (dissenting
A wise man once said, “all copyright questions can be reduced to two answers: 1) Yes, but… and, 2) No, however…” (Maher) Since the (Copyright Act of 1970), any work done by anyone is copyrighted to that creator. This is sometimes referred to as “Initial Ownership”. Registration is no longer required, however it is needed for fiscal litigation’s recovery. That being said, however, generally speaking, any creative work done at the behest of an employer, after 1978, is considered, unless otherwise agreed upon to be “work for hire”. Essentially, if the hiring party controls “the manner and means by which the product is accomplished” (Maher) it is Work for Hire.
This means that the hiring party owns the copyright to the work, and may use it as they see fit, without crediting the author. As Machiavellian as that may seem, it was standard business practice for many years. Until along came VARA.
The Visual Artists’ Rights Act of 1990, guarantees, starting June 1, 1991 on, and only for the life of the author, to claim authorship of their work, to prevent use of the authors name to works that are not theirs, to prevent use of the authors name in the event of distortion or mutilation of work, to prevent mutilation or distortion of work, and to prevent the destruction or modification of said work.
VARA derives these concepts from what we refer to as “French Moral Rights”. They are:
1) droit de divulgation. The right of creators to control the circumstances of the public release of the work.
2) droit de paternité. The right to claim authorship of ones one’s work, and the right to have works falsely attributed.
3) droit de suite. The right to a share in the fruits of one’s labor.
Remember our “yes, but/ no, however” answer to every copyright question? In an attempt to balance employer’s right with artists’ rights, the law allows for “wiggle room” by use of contract law. Here are some contractual situations:
First Rights. Legal “dibs”. Simply put, the hiring party gets the first opportunity to use or publish the work before anyone else.
Serial Rights. For publications, the right to use an image in publication format.
Non-Exclusive Rights. For shared images, often at the discretion of the hiring party.
One Time Use Rights. The hiring party has the right to use the image once, for a specific project.
Right of Refusal. Wherein an author must give their partner/employer the right to match a competitor’s interest in the work.
Title 17 of the United States Copyright Law, Section(s) 107 speaks to the public’s right of “Fair Use”. (See Appendix 1.) “Fair Use” is a term that gets thrown around a lot. §107 is a very short piece, (especially when compared to §108, our next subject) but its implications are very far reaching. Briefly, §107 allows copying (or “appropriation”) “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research…”
There are many factors that come in to play for eligibility of the Fair Use Doctrine. The purpose, the nature, the amount of material reproduced, and its effect on the market value of the original are the main considerations. Also under the general implications of Fair Use, aside from criticism, comment, and /or parody is the transformative nature of the new, “appropriated” work, generally meaning a re-contextualization.
“The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular
case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words,
lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source
of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.”
§ 108 of the United States Copyright code speaks of limitations on exclusive rights, particularly reproductions by libraries, archives (and museums). (See Appendix 2) Allowed by §108 archivists et all are allowed to make copies of copyrighted works if 1) the copies themselves are non-commercial, 2) the copying institution is public in nature, and 3) original copyright notice is given. (“©”, or simply the word “copyright” and the year.)
§108 allows for up to three copies of unpublished works to be preserved/deposited if it is of something pre-exiting in the archivist’s records and that the copies do not leave the premises. Published works may be copied under similar limitations if the original is damaged if no unused replacement can be found and the copy is not made public.
Copying of a single article (for reference or loan) may be done if that copy is to be the sole responsibility of the copier (person) and the institution has prominently displayed a sign to that effect. An entire work can be copied if it cannot be obtained at a fair price. Again, the onus is on the copier.
None of this is to say that libraries or archive are to be held liable for unsupervised copying, exonerates anyone who tread past reasonable “fair use” (see next section), nor allows systematic reproduction and /or distribution of previously copyrighted works.
Due diligence and good faith are expected, even where §108 allows for exceptions.
On the subject of “Public Domain”- the even more convoluted companion to “Fair Use”. Complexities arise due the time of the implementation of the law and the expiration of that specific work’s copyright status.
Most basically, a work is considered Public Domain when the copyright on the work expires and has not been renewed, such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Musical Compositions from the Baroque era, most silent films, and so on. A simple definition would be:
“It should be a place of sanctuary for individual creative expression, a
sanctuary conferring affirmative protection against the forces of private
appropriation that threatened such expression” (Ronan p. 104)
In 1790 Congress passed the first federal copyright act, based on the Statute of Anne, (5) setting out a term of 14 years renewable for 14 years if the author was living. By 1831 it became 28 years, plus renewal for 14. 1909 saw the renewable extend to 28 years. The last major revision, the one that still holds for today is the 1976 revision, which gives term of life of the author plus 50 years, works for hire, 75.
So for something to fall into the public domain would depend entirely on its point of temporal origin. Works by authors who died in 1964 would as of, January 2014 go into public domain, if the copyright had not otherwise been sold and renewed.
THE AESTHETIC PHILOSOPHY:
Photographic theory began the day the first camera was invented.
Originally, the camera obscura (literally: hidden chamber, CF Latin.) was an artist’s tool. A box, a cabinet (6), if you will, some room-sized, some portable. This chamber, presciently, would be a dark (light tight, windowless) room, with a tiny, lensless hole in one wall that would project in image, if the light was strong enough, horizontally reversed, to the opposite wall, (7) where an artist would attach a piece of tracing vellum, and trace the image in caratouche (a waxy/chalky crayon). (8) These devices were much more commonplace than people suppose. They have been used, in one form or another by artists from Rembrant to Rockwell.
As time went on, the tracing vellum was replaced with a light sensitive medium, and the camera, as we know it, began.
Early “photographic theory” was expressed through invention. Louie Daguerre and Joseph Niépce worked together, after their early individual discoveries to make photography more user friendly. It began as a toy. Kitsch, a novelty, not to be taken seriously by the intelligentsia. Charles Baudelaire was aghast: “A vengeful God has granted the wishes of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. …From that moment, our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal…” (Sontag, p.190)
A most essential thing about the camera is its most base democratization of all things. In Robert Frank’s “The Americans” (1958) Jack Kerouc’s introduction remarked “After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin”. (Frank, p5). The camera is first and foremost a recording tool, with specific physical parameters of operation. The value of any image it produces is based upon the implication that it is of something that is out there. And in so doing shows us something about that thing that we could not see otherwise. As we survey a scene, our eyes are dart around, picking up pieces of information, we composite it in our mind’s eye. The camera gives it all to us in a glance. It breaks the world down into bit-sized morsels, to be handled, exchanged, framed, and even thrown away. And that is of no matter, because of course we can make more.
It is a young technology, one of the first of the modern technologies. As we stand now, in the second century of photography, we have had enough time to see meaning shift with time as it passes. It separates us from then, ordinary moments, out of context images from the not now, gaining a mysterious significance.
We have always had a nervous love-hate relationship with the camera. We were never comfortable with it, or its pictures of us. We range from confrontation to aversion. Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” averts her eyes, avoids the camera. Turn of the century postcard portraits look past the camera from the past. As we in the present stare past them.
We deny our own image in photographs the way we deny our voice in recordings.
By 1977, Susan Sontag, in her essay “In Plato’s Cave” would be able to say: “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which every one is now addicted.” (p 24). The photograph has become the reality. Memories confabulate. The photograph confirms.
Notes for Photography in the Museum Context
1. JPEG stands for “Joint Experts Photography Group”, the name of the the committee that created that, as well as other photographic formats.
2. The industry standard is the “Kodak Color Separation Guide with Grey Scale”, generally referred to as a “Q Card”. They come in variety of sizes, and can be kind of pricey, $40-$60 for a piece of cardboard. The price one must pay…
3. This is similar to the way music is recorded. One has the “master tracks” where everything, drums, bass, vocals, etc are all set to the same middle level. The sound engineer then goes in and decides where to sonically “place” the various tracks.
4. Other lossless formats include: PNG (Portable Network Graphics), GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), BMP (Bitmap), and PSD (specific to Adobe Photoshop, it in fact stands for PhotoShop Document. Similar to a TIF, but it preserves the working Photoshop layers.)
5. An act of Parliament from roughly 1710, meant to protect printers from pirating and unauthorized copying.
6. “Cabinet” here slyly refers back to the Curiosity Cabinets of the mid-second millennium
wherein collectors would keep various item of natural ephemera. The term “cabinet” originally referred to a room, not a piece of furniture, (which is what they, of course, eventually became). These Cabin-ettes were the beginnings of Museums as we know them today. I am so clever.
7. This is the science of “optics”. The mathematics behind this is where the “focal length” concept comes from.
You can see this yourself by punching a hole in a piece of cardboard and putting it between a strong light and a wall. In the cardboard’s shadow, in the hole where the light comes through, will be, at point of focus, the image of the light emanating device. This is how you’re supposed to watch a solar eclipse, too.
8. “Caratouche” is from where the word “cartoon” derives. The image would then be transferred to its final support and then refined. Cartoons help one keep their perspective. In so many ways.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida; Reflections On Photography. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1980
Elkins, James (Editor). Photography Theory. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, New York.
Frank, Robert. The Americans. Grove Press, New York, 1959.
Frizot, Michel (Editor). A New History of Photography. Könemann, Köln, Germany. 1998.
Greenough, Sarah (Editor). On the Art of Fixing A Shadow; One Hundred and Fifty Years of Photography. National Board Of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Little, Brown and Company, Canada/U.S.A., 1989
Maher,William J. Copyright: The Archivist And The Law Handbook. SAA Workshop September 2014.
Ronan, Deazley. Rethinking Copyright:History, Theory, Language. Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton, MA, 2006.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1978
Stieglitz, Alfred. Stieglitz On Photography; His Selected Essays and Notes. Sarah Greenough (editor). Aperture Foundation, New York. 2000
Weston, Edward. Edward Weston on Photography. Peter C. Bunnell (editor). Peregrine Smith Books, Salt Lake City, Utah. 1983